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Get Off Fast Lane To New Jersey

April 1, 2007
Commentary By ART FELTMAN

I confess: I grew up in northern New Jersey. Yes, that mess of bottlenecked highways and garbage dumps one smells while driving to or from New England. It's a blurry tangle of identical tract homes, strip malls, indoor shopping malls, acres of parking, gas stations, fast food outlets - you get the idea. In the county where I was raised, a million people have access to only one park of any size: perhaps 50 green acres in the center of all that asphalt.

I came to Connecticut to go to college, but I stayed because of the quality of life here. Within a short distance from an urban center, there's a silent woods through which to hike. Most towns have defined centers with a town hall, a church, a library and some businesses within walking distance. These subtle touches form the soul of Connecticut.

I am not the only one who values Connecticut's peacefulness. I often am surprised at the number of Hartford-area business people who choose to raise their families here, while spending much of their time traveling across the country or world.

Last month Gov. M. Jodi Rell urged the state to channel its economic development in a manner that's more respectful of our natural environment, and the enhanced quality of life it produces. She calls it "responsible growth." Last week, the legislature's Planning and Development Committee, of which I am co-chairman, sent a modified version of her bill to the floor.

This bill will use common-sense criteria to judge whether a proposed development deserves the backing of our state. Among these criteria: Would a project re-use already developed, but underused, property? Is it served by existing infrastructure? Are there easy transportation links?

If a suggested land use fails to meet these tests, neither the town nor the developer would receive any state aid for the project. The bill also allows a town to be heard if it would be adversely affected by a major development planned nearby.

Some other bills should also encourage better land use.

Since the 1950s, some housing developers have done their best to make every town look the same. We've grown used to, and towns are zoned for, subdivisions in which each house sits on a half-acre, more or less, of land; has a front yard, rear yard, and two side yards; and has public road frontage. Other than the paved road, there is no public space.

A friend built an unusually designed settlement of homes in Amherst, Mass. The land he developed was a stand of trees on a hill, with many acres of virgin pastureland below. My friend clustered twenty-five homes in a circle on the gentle slope, leaving 60 percent of the land undisturbed as open space: the trees uphill and the pasture below. Residents enter the circle on a private road, and while there is land between each house, there are no fences or borders between them. The open space they've gained is shared in common.

A bill I authored formally welcomes this concept to Connecticut. Called "conservation development zones," it permits developers to build housing at a density 10 percent above the norm - if they agree to lay fallow 40 percent of the land they propose to develop. The undeveloped portion would be deeded to the town or a land conservation group.

A third bill seeks to preserve the distinct character of New England's built environment, including heirlooms from our agricultural past. It encourages towns to write zoning laws to protect historic barns and other antiquated farm outbuildings. We also allow towns to exempt these properties from taxation.

In another bow to our past, we ask towns to let seasonal farm stands operate in residential areas.

What makes a state a desirable place to live can't be measured with clarity. I'd assert these factors are part of the mix: good jobs, good schools, easy transportation, security, privacy, a pleasing built environment, and an enveloping connection to the natural environment.

Before Connecticut slides into New Jersey, let's take a breath. God isn't making any more land, at least not on this Earth. Let's grow carefully, and preserve the rest.

State Rep. Art Feltman, D- Hartford, is House chairman of the General Assembly's Planning and Development Committee.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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